HC Deb 22 February 1996 vol 272 cc522-9

5.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

I beg to move amendment No. 44, in page 5, line 22, after 'that', insert '(a)'.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following: Government amendments Nos. 45 and 46.

Amendment No. 57, in page 5, line 27, at end insert—

Provided that no order made pursuant to this subsection shall specify a birth certificate as a relevant document for the purposes of a defence under this section until statutory provision has been made requiring applicants seeking the issue of a birth certificate—

  1. (a) to complete a comprehensive application form,
  2. (b) to state their relationship to the subject of the required certificate, and
  3. (c) to state the purpose for which the certificate is to be used.'.

Mr. Kirkhope

A key argument made by many respondents to our consultation document was that it was important for employers to know exactly what they needed to do to establish a defence. The three Government amendments to clause 8 are designed to ensure that employers can be clear in their minds about two key points.

The first point was raised in Committee, and we promised to consider it. We now propose that the wording in subsection (3) be amended as set out in amendment No. 45. Our consultation document referred clearly to employers seeing documents which appear, prima facie, to belong to the person offering himself or herself for employment. Subsection (3), however, simply refers to documents relating to the person concerned. It was suggested that that formulation would require employers to make more elaborate efforts to establish the true identity of potential employees.

Amendment No. 45 will ensure that no more is expected of employers than is outlined in the consultation document. They will be able to assume that a document belongs to and relates to the person proffering it unless there is a good reason that would suggest that that is not the case.

Amendment No. 46 will amend subsection (3) to allow us to give employers the clearest possible indication of what they will need to do, when they have seen a document, to provide themselves with a defence. The current draft simply allows us to specify documents that would establish a defence, but does not allow us to be specific about other important details. In some cases, as our consultation document said, we would expect employers to take a copy of a document to establish a defence. In the case of the P45 defence, an employer would simply need to have retained—as he is required to at present in any event—part of the form. Obviously, it would be inappropriate to include in the Bill detailed points about the taking of photocopies or the scanning of documents using information technology equipment. Nevertheless, amendment No. 46 will enable us to leave employers and the courts in no doubt about what is required.

Amendment No. 44 is a minor drafting amendment to subsection (3) which is desirable because of the introduction of amendment No. 46.

Before I leave amendments Nos. 44 to 46, I should tell the House that we have been giving further consideration to an argument that was made in Committee about the possibility that racketeers would abuse the statutory defences. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) yesterday recognised the need to deal with such people.

We certainly do not want unscrupulous employers to have a defence when they know that the person employed is not entitled to work or when they have been actively involved in producing false documentation for that employee. We need to ensure that racketeers are guilty of an offence in those circumstances. We shall examine the matter carefully. If we consider that clause 8 needs strengthening, we shall table an amendment to that effect in the other place, but legitimate employers will have nothing to fear and no additional burdens will be placed on them. I commend those minor but important amendments to the House.

I should like to give my reaction to amendment No. 57, which has not yet been moved. It would prevent an order made under subsection (3) from including a birth certificate as a specified document until the Government have implemented certain proposals contained in the White Paper "Registration: Proposals for Change", relating to controls on the issuing of certified and uncertified birth certificates.

The amendment reflects anxieties, which the Government share, about the comparative ease with which certified copies of birth certificates can be obtained and the fact that such certificates can be used to establish false identities. Several hon. Members mentioned the issue in Committee.

The procedure for obtaining certified copies of birth certificates is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health because he is responsible for the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, whose White Paper discussed the problem and possible ways of solving it. We are discussing the issue.

The Government understand and share the fundamental concern that lies behind the amendment, and we shall bear that concern in mind when we draft the final version of an order under the clause. We do not believe, however, that the significant but fairly small-scale abuse that can and does take place will necessarily justify excluding birth certificates from the list of specified documents. We do not consider it appropriate for such an exclusion to be contained in the Bill.

I hope, therefore, that Opposition Members will agree to withdraw that amendment.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I beg leave to move amendment No. 57, standing in my name and that of a number of right hon. and hon. Friends.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. The hon. Gentleman does not need to move the amendment at this moment. If it were to be moved, it would be done separately after the others have been considered.

Mr. Madden

As the Minister said, the amendment is designed to block an important loophole that was first revealed in the book "The Day of the Jackal", whereby it is lawful and extremely easy for any person to obtain the birth certificate of any other person, living or dead, and to assume that person's identity.

The Government have expressed concern about the loophole—and expressed the intention to legislate to block the loophole—since 1990 and the publication of the White Paper "Registration: Proposals for Change", in which the idea of making personation more preventable was suggested. The White Paper made several recommendations to regularise procedures for obtaining birth certificates, which are contained in amendment No. 57; sadly, the Government have failed since 1990 to provide time for appropriate legislation to be brought before the House.

Action to make personation more difficult has become tangled up in the controversy concerning identity cards. The amendment gives the Government the opportunity to take the action that they say they wish to take to stop the ease with which people may acquire a birth certificate—and the identity—of someone else, either alive or dead. This matter has been of long-standing concern to hon. Members, and I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who has been campaigning on this issue for several years, and to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who has brought this matter to our attention in the past.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), reconsiders the Government's attitude to amendment No. 57. Birth certificates are specified in orders relating to the Bill as providing employers accused of employing illegal entrants with a defence. The amendment has three aims: first, in applying for a birth certificate, a person would have to complete a comprehensive application form; secondly, a person would have to state his or her relationship to the subject of the required certificate; and, thirdly, a person would have to state the purpose for which the certificate would be used.

These seem to be perfectly reasonable requests to be made of someone applying for a copy of a birth certificate. We have been waiting a long time for such legislation. I strongly urge the Minister—if he is unable to accept the amendment—to consider, in another place, coming forward with an appropriate vehicle to realise the intentions of amendment No. 57.

Mr. Kirkhope

I have already stated that the Government are considering the position. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he requires, but I acknowledge that there is a problem with birth certificates for these proceedings, as well as for agencies and organisations that rely on birth certificates as evidence, such as building societies, passport agencies and insurance companies. It is a problem of a general nature and the Government are examining it and are concerned to deal with it as soon as possible.

Mr. Madden

The Minister is clearly reinforcing the case that urgent legislation must be introduced. He should come forward, in another place, with a suitable way of introducing the intentions that lie behind the amendment, and that clearly are of concern to all hon. Members. I hope that a way can be found to introduce these long-awaited reforms during the passage of the Bill.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I identify with the hon. Gentleman's points because I have had a most distressing case in my constituency. People who are personated believe that their lives have been wrecked—as is the case for one of my constituents and, no doubt, for the constituents of other hon. Members. One of my constituents had the experience of someone going to St. Catherine's house, getting access to her birth certificate, assuming her identity and undertaking all sorts of fraudulent activity.

My constituent had no legal means of addressing the situation. The person who committed the offence was taken to court, found guilty of gross and serious impersonation—and much worse—and sentenced to imprisonment for three months. She was released after six weeks and has continued to use the name of my constituent, who has since been through a pregnancy, which was not easy for her and which added to her distress. She is at the end of her tether and feels that nothing can be done.

I ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), to give some ground. There is a great need, even if only for a small number of people—that is what a democracy is all about—to address this problem. The amendment is one way of addressing it. I look to my hon. Friend to offer some way forward—in another place, if it cannot be done now, or by some formula that has a measurable time span, which will not kick the issue into the long grass for ever. That would cause my constituent, and the constituents of other hon. Members, distress that I could not live with.

5.15 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I have read about the situation affecting the constituent of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), and I feel for him. It is unbelievable that something like that can happen in this modern day. I support amendment No. 57. I have in my hand the birth certificate of a young girl named Jennifer, who was born in Birmingham at 6 am on 3 October 1967. I also have in my hand the death certificate of Jennifer, which is dated 4 October 1967. Jennifer and her twin did not survive more than 24 hours.

Hon. Members may not be surprised to learn that on 6 May 1988 a national insurance number was issued to Jennifer; on 5 December 1992 a British visitors passport was issued; and on 25 November 1993 a full British passport was issued. All the details were the same—the names of the parents, the name of the hospital of birth and the date of birth. For all intents and purposes, this person was Jennifer—who survived for less than 24 hours.

It is difficult to describe the distress suffered by the parents of Jennifer—who died almost 30 years ago—when a Home Office investigator knocked on their door, having tracked them down, to explain what had happened. I do not criticise the Home Office investigation unit. It discovered this fraud as a result of a random check of one year's British visitor passport applications at one post office. The death certificate was discovered. It took quite a while to track down the now elderly couple, who were pensioners and who had had several more children. Thirty years after the twins had died, someone decided to impersonate Jennifer—someone claimed that she was Jennifer. She could not possibly claim to be the birth child of the couple, but she stuck it out for months before her true identity was discovered.

As a result of looking into this case, of contact with the Home Office and of parliamentary questions, I became aware of the White Paper. I had not been aware of the proposals; but when I looked at the detail, I was reminded that there had been a proposal to change the marriage laws so that people could get married in a submarine or somewhere. In answer to parliamentary questions, I was referred to the proposals in Command Paper 939. However, none of the parliamentary answers in 1995 said that the White Paper was dated 1990. Only when I examined it did I realise that it was six years old.

The Government have a problem: the White Paper, which followed a Green Paper, made it clear that they had taken on board the criticisms in the Green Paper. Paragraph 6.10 of the document states: In essence, the right to buy certified copies of events will be more tightly controlled". Paragraph 6.11 states: Statutory provision will be made for the issue of non-certified copies of entries in the recent records and, instead of the present entitlement to a certified copy, all applicants will be entitled to non-certified copies … However, those requiring certified copies will have to complete a more comprehensive application form resembling that for a passport. Applicants will be required to identify themselves, state their relationship to the subject … and the purpose … for which it is required. They will also be asked to give their address". It does not deny access to people wishing to check their historical family records. However, the procedures were tightened.

St. Catherine's house issues almost 250,000 certified birth certificates per year. In answer to a parliamentary question from me, the then Under-Secretary for Health, the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville), replied: In 1994 the Registrar General issued 245,961 full birth certificates".—[Official Report, 13 March 1995: Vol. 256, c. 399.] I received another answer from the Department of Health on 31 March 1995. The then Under-Secretary said that the forms would be redesigned and that people applying at St. Catherine's house would also be required to state their relationship to the subject of the required certificate and the purpose for which the certificate was to be used … the application forms now in use by the Registrar General ask for this additional information, but applicants cannot. at present, be obliged to provide the answers".—[Official Report, 31 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 814.] It is possible—as I have proved more than once—to walk into St. Catherine's house, not fill in the form properly and still be given a certificate. I visited St. Catherine's house to check out the procedure a year ago and I went again yesterday and today. The application form currently in use does not conform with what the Under-Secretary told me on 31 March. The form does not require applicants to state their relationship to the person whose birth certificate it is: they are simply asked whether they are applying for their own certificates. Applicants are not asked whether it is a family birth certificate.

I took up the matter with the Prime Minister last May. The Government have identified the problem: they know about "The Day of the Jackal" loophole. They commissioned a Green Paper, followed by a White Paper, to examine an issue that cannot be contentious in this place. Yet, six years later, there is no legislation. The Prime Minister wrote to me on 23 May last year to say that some of the measures to which I had alluded had been implemented. He continued: It remains the Government's intention to introduce the necessary legislation to implement the remaining White Paper proposals, when Parliamentary time permits". I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 22 years—it has been a privilege every day—but the last two parliamentary Sessions have been the lightest in legislative terms that I can recall. A short Bill—a private Member's Bill or a Government Bill—could deal with the matter. We could dispense with it in a few days. There is no problem: the snags have been ironed out already in the Green and the White Papers.

I cannot see why we do not send a signal to organised crime. It is not a case of one or two people playing around—although the hon. Member for Ealing, North has highlighted a particular difficulty. Organised crime is clearly involved. Procuring a birth certificate is only the beginning of creating a personality—I understand that it is described as creating a "legend". Although the birth certificate states that it cannot be used as proof of identity, no one takes any notice of that. If one offers a birth certificate along with other documents, one can get a national insurance number, open bank accounts and get one's name on the electoral register. People can create false personalities and cause mayhem. I cannot understand why the loophole has not been closed.

I shall give another example of a constituency case that was drawn to my attention only a few weeks ago. I made inquiries about a constituent who had been involved in some illegal activities and had been caught. I received a letter from the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), which is pertinent to the thrust of the debate. I shall refer to my constituent as "Mr. A". The letter states: Furthermore, Mr. A. was convicted on 28 March 1994 of three counts of theft and forgery and was sentenced to nine months in prison on each count to be served concurrently. He was arrested by police on 7 May 1993, having produced a British birth certificate that was not his in order to secure employment with the Department of Employment since 1990. Whilst so employed, he had obtained approximately £13,000. That person was found guilty of fraud against the Department of Employment, and he got his job by offering a false birth certificate.

There is clearly a problem with false birth certificates. Although it may not be possible to close the loophole in the Bill in the other place, I do not believe that, six years after the publication of the White Paper, it is impossible to put before the House the clauses necessary to close that loophole. Such legislation could be debated fully—it is proper that that should occur—receive Royal Assent, and be on the statute book before the close of play in summer. The Government intend to clear all legislation by that time—for reasons that I will not go into, but will be obvious to everyone with a passing interest in politics in this country.

I do not believe that it is not possible to do that. The Minister will have to give me a better reason than the statement, "The Government are still considering it." The White Paper proposed such legislation six years ago. I am aggrieved about the matter because some of my constituents are affected by people who are misusing the system and obtaining birth certificates to create false personalities. My constituents and I demand action.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I support the amendments. I assure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) that his persistent campaign on the issue has not gone unnoticed. His efforts, and those of the hon. Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), should commend themselves to the Government and command all-party support.

It is ironic that only yesterday we were told that a heavy hand should be raised against the 10,000 people who were supposedly working illegally in this country and using false documents to secure those jobs. Today we have an opportunity to do something about those who are culpable of working illegally and using the most unacceptable methods. As has been said, they are causing grievous distress to the people whom they have impersonated or to their families.

It seems bizarre that in amendments Nos. 44, 45 and 46, tabled by the Under-Secretary, we are now saying that if a document looks official in some way, we will not prosecute. That shows that the Government are willing to be more reasonable than they were even yesterday. However, the Government are not prepared to do anything about the one document—a false birth certificate—that we know might be falsely held and used illegally.

As the hon. Member for Perry Barr said, a statement was made to the House about that problem as long ago as February 1990. In answer to a question from the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), the Government replied: Nearly all of the changes envisaged will require legislation for their implementation, and the Government hope to introduce this at an early date".—[Official Report, 1 February 1990; Vol. 166, c. 353.] I hope that the Government Whip's office is a little more efficient about other matters than it has been in implementing the reply that the hon. Gentleman received in 1990. In 1995, the Prime Minister said that the need for legislation: has not been lost between the Home Office and the Department of Health". In an article in the Evening Standard on 13 December 1995, A Home Office spokeswoman said she was aware that procedures had been tightened. She said: 'There have been some occasions when people applied for replacement birth certificates and other certificates which haven't necessarily been replacements for their own. We have picked up 10,000 people working illegally last year. Primarily it is birth certificates that are used.' The legislation proposes every possible way of tackling refugees and asylum seekers, but it does not tackle the problem that the Government say is primarily to blame. Something should be done about it and amendment No. 57 provides an opportunity to do so. If the Government cannot give that assurance today, I hope that they will have the sense to do so in another place.

5.30 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) on their persistent campaign to bring the matter to public attention and to the attention of the House.

Reliable and secure certification of identity is fundamental to the operation of a democracy such as ours. Without it, people cannot claim their rights. Moreover, there is an open encouragement to the fraudulent access to rights to which people are not entitled. Having examined its background, I am quite astonished by the Government's complacency on the issue. They accept that there is a problem, but they sit on their hands when sensible proposals are made—not by us, but by Ministers—to deal with it.

It is not a controversial issue between the parties. We have said before and I say again that we shall co-operate fully with the Government in putting legislation on the statute book, either within the Bill or separately, before the summer. If Ministers are wondering why their motives in bringing forward employer checks are open to question, they need look no further than the gaping hole in the regime. On one hand, they impose criminal sanctions on decent, hard-working small business people; on the other hand, they are faced with a complete scandal by which people can evade those controls to obtain jobs and other benefits, and although proposals have been ready and waiting in a White Paper for five years, following a Green Paper two years previously, they take absolutely no action.

Action is required. Without it, the continuing scandal of people gaining access to rights, including benefits and jobs, will continue. We want it stopped and we want the Government to accept our offer to have it stopped.

Mr. Kirkhope

I am grateful to everybody for their contributions in the short debate. There was certainly a general feeling of sympathy, and I shall undertake to draw our exchanges to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who is aware of the matter, as I explained earlier.

Mr. Harry Greenway

I should like briefly to point out to my hon. Friend that the cases about which we have heard have largely been resolved, but the person who impersonated my constituent was sentenced to three months' imprisonment, served only three weeks and is now impersonating her again. She ought to be deported, but no one knows from which country she comes and she says that she does not know either. Those extra difficulties make the matter even more urgent.

Mr. Kirkhope

I thank my hon. Friend for that. As I said, I shall draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the details of this evening's debate.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 45, in page 5, line 25, leave out 'related' and insert 'appeared to him to relate'.

No. 46, in page 5, line 27, at end insert 'and (b) either the document was retained by the employer, or a copy or other record of it was made by the employer in a manner specified in the order in relation to documents of that description.'—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

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